Winter still reigns in the upper reaches of Glacier National Park.
Its mountains remain coated with snow, and a dark layer of clouds cloaked their tips May 2. But as the ALERT rescue helicopter flew over Lake McDonald, bound for Sperry Chalet, Orrin Webber wasn’t concerned.
“We’re gonna have good visibility, that’s for sure,” the Glacier National Park Conservancy board member remarked while pilot Matt Weller steered toward a gap in the peaks. In the back, beside this Daily Inter Lake reporter, sat photographers Adele and Jeff Scholl, co-owners of GravityShots.
They were helping the Glacier Conservancy keep tabs on the burned-out chalet, whose stone walls were braced with lumber this past fall. This flight would show them, the Conservancy, the Park Service and Sperry fans around the world how the lodge was doing.
“We just need to make sure the thing is still standing,” explained Webber, who also sits on the board of the Kalispell Regional Healthcare Foundation. Two previous flyovers had shown the walls upright. But for Doug Mitchell, the Conservancy’s executive director, each check-in brings new concern.
“You always have this moment with a little anxiety” when an email with Sperry photos arrives, he said.
More worrying signs came as Weller, ALERT’s chief pilot, flew the bright-red chopper up Snyder Creek and around Edwards Mountain. The clouds hung low around the valleys’ rims. Avalanche paths were filled with dirt-stained snow.
But when Sperry’s plateau came into view, the chalet was still there, its chimneys, stone and supporting woodwork all intact.
The helicopter made several passes for photos, at much shorter distances than a Cessna could keep. “There’s this release and gratitude that it’s still standing proud,” Mitchell said after reviewing the photos.
Sperry’s original builders had used pack animals and their own backs to haul stone, lumber and other materials to its site. This time, much of that transportation will come from the air. The rebuilding’s draft environmental assessment says that as many as 520 helicopter flights could be required.
The heavy lifting will need to be done by Sikorsky Skycranes and other large helicopters. But the ALERT helicopter, with its minivan-sized cabin, may also prove crucial.
ALERT made the recent flyover at no cost to the Conservancy to prepare for a possible rescue mission. Weller explained that the bowl-shaped valleys, called “cirques,” around the Chalet can make flying tricky.
“The wind can swirl around inside there,” he explained. “We didn’t have strong winds, but they were very variable.”
“As the chief pilot, I’ll be able to go back and share with the other pilots some of the challenges, some of the obstacles...Not all of us have been up there or landed before.”
The chalet site’s weather is just one of the rebuilding effort’s challenges. But thanks to the information gleaned Wednesday, that process can keep moving forward.
“The old gal is standing through the winter,” Mitchell said. “It really is a great moment to see firsthand.”
Sperry Chalet’s environmental assessment is open for public comment until May 7. To view the document and submit comments, visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov/SperryChalet2018.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.